Fashion is still afraid to commit to wearable tech

Will the industry ever take its bit on the side seriously?
Fashion's tech commitment fear

For years, fashion designers have roped in all kinds of celebrities - pop starlets, actors and retired supermodels - to walk their catwalk shows, in a bid to send the flashbulbs popping double-time and nab those elusive front page slots.

But in the last few years, a new kind of press friendly spectacle has emerged on the runways, that of the wearable tech and high fashion hook-up.

It all began in September 2012, when a handful of models at Diane von Furstenberg's New York show sported the then brand new Google Glass eyewear (neatly colour-coordinated to match their tangerine and turquoise spring outfits, of course) and Sergey Brin joined the designer for her smiling end-of-show bow.

A couple of years later, von Furstenberg unveiled a limited edition range of the smart specs, hoping to silence the naysayers who claimed Glass wasn't pretty enough to appeal to a high fashion audience, but within 12 months Brin had shelved the project altogether with the mysterious Project Aura taking its place.

All spectacle, no staying power

Richard Nicoll and Studio XO's Tinkerbell dress, commissioned by Disney

Since then, we've seen a new wearable wonder unveiled at almost every biannual fashion week. Just last week in New York, design house Chromat presented a collection of glowing dresses controlled by Intel Curie modules, but in the luxury fashion world the UK has been leading the way.

In spring 2014, London-based womenswear duo Fyodor Golan partnered with Nokia to create a skirt comprised of 80 interconnected Lumia phones. Later the same year, at London Collections: Men, A Sauvage showed 'charging chinos' (in collaboration with Microsoft) and the following season a charging belt was modelled at Casely-Hayford.

We're exposing designers to a new way of working

Back on the womenswear schedule, Richard Nicoll and Studio XO debuted a flashy fibre optic dress at his spring/summer 2015 show (Disney commissioned the Tinkerbell-inspired frock) and Henry Holland gave celeb pals Alexa Chung and Daisy Lowe insect-shaped NFC rings with which to swipe and pay for pieces at the end of his catwalk presentation last September. The problem? Nothing sticks. More often than not, these are one-offs, designed to enhance the event and the coverage.

The Apple Watch Hermès Collection aside, products that make it from the catwalk to the consumer are a rarity when it comes to wearables despite the fact that, on the surface, fashion and tech make excellent bedfellows.

In the UK, the London College of Fashion's spin-off Fashion Innovation Agency has facilitated many of the collaborations, including Fyodor Golan's Lumia skirt, Richard Nicoll's Disney dress and the A Sauvage charging trousers.

"The way that projects come about is a mix of technology companies approaching us with things that they're working on and then us having an ambition of finding a solution to some problem within the [fashion] industry that we know technology could help solve," explained Matthew Drinkwater, head of the FIA. "What we're really passionate about is ensuring some kind of knowledge transfer so that you're exposing designers to a new way of working and beginning to introduce techniques that they might not have had access to before."

Of course, the buzz-generating aspect is also appealing for both parties.

"There is that element to it and I think certainly for technology brands they view fashion week as this enormous platform," he said. "The combined social and traditional print reach for fashion week is huge, so it is this amazing showcase and an opportunity to show off what is the very latest technology."

Read this: 20 wearables that are more chic than geek for fashion week

For young designers struggling to foot the exorbitant bill for a sub-ten minute fashion show twice a year, the financial incentive of a tech partnership isn't to be sniffed at either.

"Absolutely, the cost of putting on catwalk shows is very high and these designers are at a formative stage in their business so it does form a crucial part of their revenue stream."

When we spoke to Henry Holland as he was prepping his spring/summer 2016 shoppable catwalk show with Visa Collab, he agreed that a fashion show is no longer just for the industry. "It's a huge expense," he told us. "It seems crazy to me as someone who spends that money to not be able to capitalise on it in the best possible way. The minute you show your clothes, people want them. You want to capitalise on that thirst."

Give them something beautiful

Ada + Nik's camera-enabled biker jacket sold out at Harrods

But if everyone's a winner when wearables and fashion cross-pollinate, why don't more of these hybrids make it to market?

We don't want to do things like this once, we want to do it forever

The $249 Casely-Hayford XOO charging belt, for example, is still languishing in pre-order stage when it was due to start shipping in November 2015. One of the few exceptions is the Ada + Nik camera-enabled jacket, which sold out after hitting Harrods in September last year.

The £800 biker jacket features a clip-on Narrative camera that takes a photo every two minutes and was the brainchild of designers Ada Zanditon and Nik Thakker, who then approached the camera makers and sustainable living brand EkoCycle to put the garment into production.

"People say 'oh it's just a PR stunt' but I say 'we went to retail AND we sold out,'" Thakker told me, insisting it is no flash-in-the-pan marketing project dreamt up at an agency brainstorm. "Brands like us don't want to do things like this once, we want to do it forever."

Another production run is anticipated and the design duo are now planning the jacket's next iteration, which will enable live streaming via Periscope.

Read this: Fitbit x Public School bands and GIF dresses at NYFW

To be fair, a removable camera doesn't pose so much of a production challenge, but in most other cases scaling up for mass manufacture is the primary barrier, as the supply chain for wearable technology, Drinkwater says, "just does not exist."

"If you were to go to a traditional manufacturer with a circuit board and ask them to integrate it into the clothing it would be a challenge and so we need to start looking at ways to solve those problems," he explained.

Alexa Chung tries her NFC ring at Henry Holland's last LFW show

Henry Holland, who said he would be interested in letting his customers buy items with NFC rings "down the line", pointed to all the processes such a system would need to go through and the long timelines involved. Would his fanbase be into it? "Definitely but with wearable tech it's all about doing things at the right time. If you do it too soon, it doesn't come off."

Other issues on the tech side are quickly becoming solvable: the wacky Lumia design had to be scaled back from a dress to a skirt because the phone screens started cracking, but now, with the advent of bendy OLED screens the original vision could be realised.

Still, when it comes to retail, there's a distinct dichotomy between what the average tech consumer and the high fashion shopper wants.

"Ultimately what the fashion industry wants is something that's beautiful - aesthetic is absolutely key," said Drinkwater. "When you talk about functionality, that's where there's much less interest. How many steps you've taken and what your heart rate is is much less interesting. But on a mass level… those are the things which are ultimately going to drive the industry. Luxury fashion people are still searching for that reason."

Holland sees the disconnect too: "If you are a vain, fashion-conscious customer you wouldn't necessarily want to wear some of the mass market pieces of wearable tech that have come out. People have been turned off by it."

"They're completely different people," agreed Thakker, although interestingly the Ada + Nik designer doesn't count his customers in the fashionista cohort. "Our customers, they're complete techy visionaries. They're the people who say 'I need this product to help me document my day better, I need this skill."

What's next: AR and smart materials

Can young designers help to bridge the gap, then, by creating wearables that are useful AND nice to look at?

"It can be done. You can make beautiful pieces that just happen to have the tech in there," Holland insisted, but there's also an indication that interest in circuit board-laden garments is waning.

No specific projects have been announced, but, according to Drinkwater, the Fashion Innovation Agency's focus this year is shifting towards augmented reality and smart materials.

If a piece of wearable tech doesn't require a geeky screen or big, bulky form factors, tech has a much better shot at wooing the fashion industry long term.

Google's Project Jaquard, for instance, brings touchscreen properties to textiles by weaving it with conductive yarns. The fabric is virtually indistinguishable from regular cloth - making it a vast improvement on say, the last Glass catwalk takeover - and Google's Creative Lab is teaming up with a range of fashion designers from Levi's to Savile Row.

Intel, too, is happy to give brands and designers from Opening Ceremony to Chromat to Fossil full reign over what fashionable tech looks and feels like.

It's this kind of ongoing collaboration that's needed to really push things forward beyond the series of fashion week one night stands that we're used to seeing. Flashy catwalk spectacles are all well and good, but it's going to take commitment from both tech firms and fashion houses if this relationship is going to last.

Katie Wright is Fashion and Beauty editor at the Press Association.

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